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5 lessons on how to overcome fear

Reviewed by Brooks Baer, LCPC, CMHP

Illustration of a woman standing on a path that fades into darkness and uncertainty

I’m afraid of a lot of things: death, public speaking, spiders, cramped spaces. But one of my biggest fears is change. My comfort zone is my happy place, and I like to stay in it as often as possible.

The problem is that life changes anyway, whether I try to cling to sameness or not. With that in mind, I’m actively working to accept change as a natural part of life instead of fighting it. Rather than struggle against the current, I want to flow along with it so I can move forward in my personal growth.

For me, this means not holding on to my old habits and limiting beliefs. Instead I need to recognize that they’re outdated and unhealthy, then let them go.

Many of us want to embrace change and experience growth, but that process can be hard. These five lessons have helped me so far—and they may be just what you need to take the next step forward.

1. Recognize that fear is just a feeling

A few years ago, I started practicing mindfulness meditation. I’d been feeling stuck due to my fear of change, and I found that mindfulness helped me come face to face with my thoughts and feelings.

Thinking about what scares you might sound daunting. (It was for me.) The trick is to do it from an objective standpoint, as if you’re watching a movie about yourself. This makes it much easier to simply hold all your fearful thoughts and feelings in your mind, observing the ways they show up and feed off each other.1

If your mind starts to wander, that’s okay—just bring your attention back to the present moment. Focusing on your breath helps.

Don’t try to push away any thoughts or feelings that come up. Just let them be there.

2. Explore whether your fears are true in reality

It’s human nature to believe your fears reflect reality. But that doesn’t mean they actually do.

The more you practice mindfulness, the easier it becomes to see your fears for what they really are: thoughts and feelings that come and go and don’t necessarily hold true in the real world. This enlightening realization opens the door to discovering where your fears really come from.

Fears tend to be based on stories you’ve been telling yourself and thought patterns that have been hardwired into your mind for years. Some of these stories and thought patterns may stem from personality traits like introversion or perfectionism. Others may be based on past experiences, including traumatic ones.

But just because something may have felt true in the past doesn’t mean it ever was—and even if it was true at one point, that doesn’t mean it always will be.2

I’ve made some poor choices in the past, and as a result I’m often afraid new life changes will leave me miserable and full of regret. But when I question how likely that is to actually happen, the answer is “not especially.”

Why? Because I’ve learned from my past experiences. I have a pretty good idea of what works for me and what doesn’t, so I’m much better equipped to make choices that will lead to positive outcomes.

This doesn’t mean I’ll never feel regret, but at least I can acknowledge that the chances are slim. Reminding myself of this truth helps me be more open to change.

3. Picture what you can do to create a positive outcome

We’ll never know for sure what the future holds because there are too many variables. Being able to accept this sense of uncertainty is strangely freeing. It liberates us from the delusion of “knowing” what comes next and gives us permission to stay open to possibility.

It also provides a chance to brainstorm all the ways you can try to create a positive outcome by using your skills, abilities, experience, and imagination. Start by visualizing exactly what you want to have happen, what you think you need to do to make it happen, and what your options are if it doesn’t work out.

For instance, let’s say you’re afraid of quitting your job because you’re not sure you’ll be able to find another one. A good first step is to explore what kind of job would make you feel happy and fulfilled, then spend some time visualizing yourself in that role.

A second step is to list all the actions required to make this career transition, such as updating your résumé, networking, and applying for jobs. You can also think about what you’ll do if you don’t get your dream job right away. What are your backup plans? Could you freelance or start your own business? Picture yourself taking each of these steps, including the backup plans.

This type of thinking can help you develop a sense of confidence and control because it allows you to see the situation from different angles and “mentally rehearse” how you’d handle it.3 You’ll no longer focus on all the possible negative outcomes because you’ll shift your thinking to all the different ways you could make it work.

4. Face your fears by taking action

Research shows that the human brain isn’t built to focus on more than one thing at a time.4 So when you’re thinking about how scary your fears are, you can’t also be thinking about how to overcome them.

Luckily you can override this mental programming by choosing to focus on something else: the actionable steps you can take to move closer to achieving your goal.

The key here is to start small. Remember that you’re retraining your brain, so it will take some time for new neural pathways to form.

Take whatever you visualized in step three as your plan of action for a successful outcome, then consider breaking it down into smaller steps to make it less daunting. If it still feels difficult, break it down even further. Keep repeating this step until it seems easy.

For instance, in the example of a career change, a small action would be to spend 15 minutes a day for one week researching different organizations or job listings that interest you. Then build on your actionable steps from there.

You could also try making it a game. Set a goal for yourself, like “I’ll network with two new people this week,” then see how quickly you can reach that goal. The key is to focus on how you can move the needle in a way that distracts your mind from fear while also building your confidence.

5. Remember that fear is a mental game

It isn’t easy to change the way you think about a fear that’s been taking root for years. But it is possible.

You can retrain your brain to respond differently to what you fear by following these lessons whenever you feel afraid.5 The better you get at recognizing that your fears are almost always based on your own (often unrealistic) expectations, rather than the facts, the easier it will become to manage them.

If you have trouble thinking about your fears or feel stuck about how to overcome them, consider reaching out to a close friend, family member, or mental health professional for support. Sometimes talking about your fears out loud can help you gain perspective on them.

I’m still afraid of change, but at least I know I have strategies for handling it when my mind tries to convince me I’m going to fail. Life may not go perfectly, and I may always struggle with the unknown, but now progress feels possible.

Deep down, I know that on the other side of fear is either a positive outcome or a learning experience. Getting there may not be easy, but it will be worth it.

About the author

Elise Burley is a member of the editorial team. She has more than a decade of professional experience writing and editing on a variety of health topics, including for several health-related e-commerce businesses, media publications, and licensed professionals. When she’s not working, she’s usually practicing yoga or off the grid somewhere on her latest canoe camping adventure.